Rolling Wheels in Rolling Hills

Mills Creek and Kennedy Ridge Loop
Mills Creek and Kennedy Ridge Loop
George Washington National Forest
Length/configuration : 15-mile loop.
Aerobic difficulty : Strenuous; many long, steep climbs.
Technical difficulty : Extreme killer single-track that will challenge skilled riders.
Scenery : Not lush and green overall, except for a few deep pockets of rhododendron and pine forest that are unusual for the area; a few great views from the ridges.
Special comments : An extremely rugged backcountry trek for the hard core.
General Location : Sherando Lake Recreation Area in George Washington National Forest, near Waynesboro.
Elevation Change : 1,900 feet total. The ride starts at 1,600 feet of elevation on Forest Service road 42 and tops out at 3,500 feet. Most of the climbing is along switchbacks at the end of Mills Creek Trail.
Season : Year-round. In the winter and spring, Mills Creek can get high; bring along extra socks. Rhododendron and mountain laurel bloom in May and June.
Services : All services are available in Waynesboro. Camping is available in Sherando Lake Recreation Area and primitive camping is allowed in the national forest.
Hazards : Deer-hunting season begins in November; wear orange or ride on Sundays, when hunting isn't permitted. Steep, fast descents on loose rocks on Kennedy Ridge can be dangerous. Be prepared for sudden, violent changes in the weather.
Rescue Index : Poor; cars can be flagged down on the road and a general store is located south on FS 42, but most of this ride is through remote backcountry.
Land Status : National forest.
Maps : The USGS 7.5 minute quads are Big Levels and Sherando. A better bet is the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club's Map 12, which shows all trails in the area.

This is a tough ride that local riders say is much harder than it appears on the map. The locale? The stunning Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, just south of Shenandoah National Park. Well-conditioned, advanced mountain bikers usually require four or five hours to complete this 15-mile loop, which features extremely steep and rocky Kennedy Ridge Trail. No one else should attempt it.

Yet for fit, technically adept riders, the scenery along the ride makes the effort worthwhile. Kennedy Ridge offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains. For much of its length, the trail passes through a beautiful, dense evergreen forest. Plan to ride here in May and June; the blooming rhododendrons and mountain laurel are stunning. But for dyed-in-the-wool hammerheads, the major attraction of the Mills Creek/Kennedy Loop is the 1,200-foot-vertical, 2.5-mile descent on the Kennedy Ridge Trail. It's fast and dangerous through the rocky sections . . . but exhilarating and smooth through the pine forest at the end of the trail.

Finding the trail: From I-64, take VA 624 East to VA 664 South. Drive about 5 miles, turn right onto FS 42, then take the first left onto FS 1237, and park in one of the parking areas. FS 1237 becomes Mills Creek Trail in a few hundred yards.

Notes on the trail: On your bike, ride up FS 1237 a few hundred yards; it becomes the Mills Creek Trail, which is blue-blazed and follows a creek. After 5 miles of easy riding, the switchbacks begin; most riders will need to dismount and hike this final mile up toward Bald Mountain and FS 162. The climb ends in a large open clearing (a great place to take a break).

At the clearing, turn right onto FS 162 and enjoy the roller coaster hills. At the intersection with St. Mary's Trail (signed; on the left) and Kennedy Ridge Trail (on the right), turn right onto Kennedy Ridge Trail (unsigned but blazed). After a short climb, it's all downhill from here (but very technical at the start).

The trail ends in a beautiful pine forest with lots of whoop-de-doos; don't get carried away and get hurt on this fun section of single-track. At the end of the trail, turn right onto FS 42 and return to your car (about 3 miles).

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